Football: Jamaican exiles dress to impress at World Cup carnival

Click to follow
The action was 4,500 miles away, but in an east-London suburb, Jamaica's successful attempt to qualify for football's World Cup finals almost brought the roof down.

Alister Morgan braved the sound systems and the whistles in Bethnal Green.

Last month I watched 100,000 Mexicans in the Azteca Stadium cheer their side to 5-0 victory against World Cup rivals El Salvador. I had never witnessed such intense sporting passion - until I joined 2,000 Jamaicans at York Hall on Sunday night.

Ten minutes into the game against Mexico on which Jamaica's World Cup qualification depended, the boisterous supporters were in good spirits jostling for position, waving tickets and sharing jokes - and that was just the crowd outside straining to get in.

"I've bought my tickets 'cos tonight it's history in there," Deon said. She had brought her six year-old daughter, Lauren, with her to witness the spectacle.

The congregation's demographics contrasted sharply with the kind of Sky Sports audience that fill pubs across England for big football games. About 20 per cent were women (many of whom were dressed to impress in dance hall apparel), while entire families sat together amid a sea of Jamaican flags and banners. When describing West Indians, the phrase "Carnival atmosphere" has become a cliche, but the scenes inside the hall were exactly that.

Hundreds of referee's assistants blew whistles and horns incessantly as the action unfurled over 4,000 miles away in Kingston. Every successful tackle, speculative attack and body feint had the crowd on their feet and on their chairs screaming at the giant monitor.

Most of the few Caucasians in the hall held cameras or scribbled furiously into pads.

"The English papers were having a laugh at Jamaica's expense," 30-year- old Mikey said. "They only started to report on Jamaica when Robbie Earle, Deon Burton and Paul Hall came from England.

"They're trying to suggest that if it wasn't for Jamaica's `English' players they would never qualify, but we'd been making progress before they came."

Anyone expecting a temporary respite from the fanfare at half-time was disappointed. A sound-system kicked in, blasting out bass-driven reggae and sparking even greater scenes of revelry and celebration.

When the game resumed, Jamaica continued to dominate their Mexican opponents who, having already won qualification, played with spirit but little imagination.

When news filtered through of El Salvador's 4-2 defeat to the United States the celebrations began 10 minutes before the final whistle. Wild scenes in Kingston's National Stadium were mirrored in the hall, and the Jamaican commentators were forced to give way to the reggae sound-system.

In Jamaica the director cut to intermittent shots of the crowd, the players and then landscapes of the island itself. Back in Bethnal Green some cried with joy and everybody sang - the link with the Jamaican "homeland" was almost tangible.

The majority lived and worked in England - many were born on these shores. If Jamaica had not have qualified then they would have followed England's progress, but now? - no contest.

"I'll be glad if Jamaica are in the same group as England," Ricks said. "If the score is 0-0 after 79 minutes then you'll see some English legs trembling."

"I would love to see that." Junior agreed. "And those boys from the Premiership like Burton. I've seen him play for Derby and he wasn't that impressive. Playing for Jamaica brought out the best in him - no `Englishman' could have done the job that he did."

"It's like the Marley song "400 Years" Ricks said. "We came out of slavery just over a hundred years ago in chains and look at us now.

"It's not just a question of that round ball and 22 men. We're talking about the position of Jamaica and the efforts of the poor people. It's beyond football - in this country we live four and a half thousand miles from home and have been suffering for 40 years. Now Jamaica have qualified all Jamaicans will be uplifted."

Despite enlisting the help of the Sports Minister, Tony Banks, Jamaica have had their request to play England at Wembley turned down, at least for now, because the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, has other plans.

The FA chief executive, Graham Kelly, said "Jamaica do not come into Glenn's immediate plans as he concentrates on France '98, but we will certainly bear them in mind for the next round of friendly matches between 1998 and 2000."